I have no idea how many times I listened to [the Smiths’] Meat is Murder that night in bed, but it was a lot. Every song was, or would soon be, about my life and Alison’s place in it.
—Meat Is Murder by Joe Pernice,
Continuum, 33 1/3 book series
Contemplating Suicide or a Graduate Degree
The first line on the self-titled 1999 release of the Pernice Brothers’ (Joe Pernice’s band de plume) Chappaquiddick Skyline is: “I hate my life.”
Over three minutes and thirty-eight seconds, he sings this pathetic line a total of thirteen times. It seems like a million.
The phrase is repeated on fade out.
The melody is so sad, the musicians seem to be hanging their heads low as they play — and the line becomes a t-shirt slogan for the band’s 2001 tour.
It was dawn in the world of 9/11. Joe Pernice’s band was playing out, doing some hopping from the U.S. to Canada, and their boxes of t-shirts, CDs, and buttons were being held up at customs.
They made various attempts to get the merch into Canada, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Pernice had to make The Call, and he did make The Call, reticent but vital. If the shirts couldn’t make it over the border, then could they be donated? The answer was yes. Pernice and his Ashmont Records partner Joyce Linehan found a homeless shelter willing to take them.
Yeah … the ones that say: I hate my life.
I Hope This Letter Finds You Crying
“It affected everybody, but like everybody else I was just reading the press afterwards,” Pernice says of the impact (real or perceived) of 9/11 on himself as a person and songwriter, “and you have these crazy ideas of changing your life, making drastic changes.
“I thought about it myself … but I came back around.”
Despite admitted depressive tendencies, you can tell Joe Pernice loves conversation. His quick, funny mind endures the banal, fan-boy slobber of the interviewer, and answers each question with undue respect and concern. This is encouraging, because it suggests that he is an erudite man who — one can easily imagine — creates musical pop art that is alive, reflecting intelligence and dignity, and that really is the best kind of art.
But these dark themes in his lyrics have branded him a “sad guy,” and words like “mordant,” “melancholy,” and “miserable” come up more times than not in features and reviews.
“I don’t know, I do go to that place every once in a while,” Pernice explains with gentle humor in his voice when asked about his “I hate my life” lyric.
“Not to sound like a baseball player or pro athlete … I do get that way, though. I do have moments where I feel really terrible. Like everybody.”
Pernice insists that he really isn’t an unhappy person.
“I write when I feel good,” he explains, “but I seem to write about having passed through really rocky times. I don’t write when I’m feeling that way, but maybe it’s just a way of dealing with things … I don’t really know. Obviously, I just don’t think of writing about happy things.”
Indie geeks, chamber pop hounds, and man-children in tight vintage sweaters — they probably don’t need to have Joe Pernice explained to them! They exchange their favorite Pernice weepers on message boards. They’re lusting after the ‘fictional’ book Pernice has penned, quoted at the top of this article (an essential purchase for any fan of good new rock-write in general — a slim, confessional novella equal to anything written by Nick Hornby), which delineates how the sadness-drenched sounds of Morrissey & Co. corrupted his teenage years.
You, discerning music listener, probably know all about Joe Pernice already, as well. Shit, you probably subscribe to the Pernice Brothers e-mail list, so you have read Pernice’s own accounts (an aside: if you haven’t subscribed to this e-mail list, I highly recommend you do; you will get all the latest Pernice Brothers news written by Joe Pernice in a most entertaining and intelligent style!). However, for those that do not know the story of Joe Pernice, indulge me, the poor part-time writer, to let others in on the “faux lachrymose” details.
I’ve Got A Bone In Need Of Breaking
Songwriting in the 21st century is a bit precarious. Millions of songs have been written, thousands have been recorded, and a few hundred become sacred, placed upon the Altar of the Rock Aesthetic by fickle fans (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘rock taken serious by many, rock taken joyous by a few’), guarded by the Pharisees and Sadducees of The Rock Write (to quote Prince, “all the critics love you in NY”). Bands and their singer/songwriters who choose to take a bit too obviously from these sacred tomes are scolded and, sometimes, vilified.
Pernice doesn’t give a fuck. He not only lets his “correct” influences shine — he lets his “guilty pleasures” sneak in the side door. Part of the fun of listening to his records is serendipitously clicking with a nostalgic stream of ideas from the past. One can find ELO, Big Star, the Beatles, the Zombies, and the Beach Boys all bleeding into the songs.
1998′s Overcome by Happiness (SubPop) and 2001′s The World Won’t End (Ashmont), both incredible records in their own right, are splendid exhibits worthy of any collection of pop art music. Pernice and his band — and it’s his band, without them he’d probably be ‘just another’ singer/songwriter — have released their third record, Yours Mine & Ours, and it is … even better. It is essential rock music for one simple reason: Pernice is a consummate songwriter, lacks pretension, and is abundant in accessible sensibility.
The songs on Yours are just as finely crafted as any on a Smiths record, and in similar ways nearly always infectious regardless of tempo — there’s always a hook or two per song that makes your skin tingle, a bridge here and there that causes you to sit up straight, a coda that you never want to end, and choruses that stay in your head for weeks.
Yes, this new record is a veritable slab of superb song-craft that can be loved by those who believe in rock music, as well as the casual listener. This thing is ecumenical.
Fifteen Minutes With You — Well, I Wouldn’t Say No
Pernice mentions that the 80s alternative or college rock music scene was a huge influence on his songwriting. There was a massive growth in the 80s due to the creative cataclysm of the punk movement in the late 70s. Bands were turned on to experimenting with the pop song format, invigorated by the no-futurism of the Sex Pistols, as well as the retro-now of the Ramones. No longer were musicians required to be accomplished to put out records — just inspired, and have good (or trashy fun) taste. From the Replacements and R.E.M. in the US, to Joy Division and Gang of Four in the UK, bands were conscious of writing challenging music and lyrics, and presenting them together equally.
For many discerning music listeners of the time, including a young salesman’s son named Joe Pernice, this conceptually self-aware semi-pop music inventiveness culminated with the Smiths. This smart but guitar-driven music formed tracks that inspired his philosophy on songs and songwriting: a combination of dynamic but not overly aggressive rock and roll, complimented by personal and eloquent lyrics. This unique interdependency does not seem as prevalent in music today.
Not since the Smiths’ Morrissey has a rock band had a lyricist so bloody quotable. Lines seep into my head: “So long, Marianne, an intense night of fake sleeping”; “It’s hard to read a simple mind”; “Our summer years are nothing as they’re Freudian slipping by”; “Did you have to be as typical as a tragedy?”; “Contemplating suicide or a graduate degree” … Okay! I’ll stop! But there are so many more. I remember when I was in college — I made a Top Thirteen (couldn’t confine it to ten, but forced myself to thirteen for reasons of generous brevity and the connotations that go with the number thirteen) List of Best Morrissey Lyrics. I know I could do that for Joe Pernice. (I just started it.)
One line that is especially successful comes from the track, “Baby in Two”: A potent, if not ugly image that some have believed to be some sort of Raymond Carver-influenced literal quandary. Actually, Pernice takes a Biblical image (from a story in 1 Kings pertaining to Solomon’s wisdom) and applies it to a song about a relationship.
“I’d be the king if I could say to you, ‘Cut the baby in two,’” sings
“I always thought that was a great image,” he excitedly explains. “It hasn’t been used, I can’t believe I hadn’t heard it [before elsewhere]. I had to think about it for a little while, and I was sure someone had already written a song like that, but hadn’t found one. I just thought it was great idea — it’s a grotesque but powerful image of compromise.
“I like the idea of an image having baggage, and having weight that it carries with it,” he continues. “It’s not just a literal thing; there are all sorts of connotations and implied meanings. It just had a lot of resonance — it was a lucky break.”
Three Bucks, My Coat, And Some Chemicals
Regarding the conspicuous eighth track on the new album, “Sometimes I Remember,” Pernice asserts, “That’s an homage (pronounced oh-maaajh),” Pernice says. “Oh definitely, we are huge fans of British 80s music. On occasion, on all the records, there are real conscious tips of the hat, where there’s just no doubt about what you’re doing. For the most part, you can’t really play an electric guitar and have drums and bass without it sounding like the Beatles! It’s not always a conscious thing. There is definitely times you tip your hat to your idols, and we certainly have done that on occasion. You’ll think, ‘Oh, that guitar tone off that particular Pretenders track would be great right here,’ and so you’ll do it. It happens all the time.”
Considering his cultish audience, Pernice felt some pressure to make a record that is received by less marginal fans and broader critics alike, though it wasn’t a driving force.
“To tell you the truth, every time I put out a record I always feel like we are putting our chins out there to get whacked,” he admits. “But that’s only a passing thought. Any time you make a record, I think you worry a little bit, ’cause you put so much into it. It’s personal, really. It’s about me; it’s about us. You don’t want to get crucified, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter.”
Pernice says he took his band to Vermont and worked in isolation on an album that would be a little different this time around. Conditions were laid on the table, the most noteworthy being no strings. This is interesting because of how much the presence of sweet orchestration dominated the last two records.
“I think it was just about not wanting to tread the same territory all over again,” Pernice says of the textural departure. “I wanted to hear something with more guitars.”
He does admit that strings will again be a part of future records, but his current state-of-mind is to make more guitar-oriented music.
“You really have to choose, believe it or not — do you want to hear the strings, or do you want to hear the electric guitar? In this case, I didn’t feel like choosing. I wanted the guitars to be more audible. That was one of the big reasons to leave them out,” he states.
“Lyrically, I think it’s the same bummer it’s always been. No change there.”
While Pernice’s hooks and melodies and riffs are the shizznit, the lyrics — ah, the lyrics — are what the fans rave about and keep coming back for. And, yes, they are indeed well-crafted downers, delightfully smart, clever, honest, and well-written. In the context of today’s music scene, lyrics either take a back seat or they are entirely vapid or obscure, or simply an obligation. This lack of emphasis on coherent and genuinely enjoyable lyrics can only suggest that they are not important to many bands in today’s music scene, especially in the austere and chokingly self-conscious world of indie rock.
“I just can’t believe that that’s the case!” Pernice responds, sarcastically. “But you’re right, aren’t you? About that it’s not that important to some people….” He pauses. “I thought it was important to everybody. I’m not kidding. Songs are two things: music and words.”
I Buried My Best Words To Last A Hundred Years
There is simplicity of theme in Pernice’s words, and he likes it that way. Most songs are about love and relationship, the physical and psychological emotions that ensnare and confound lovers.
“I don’t know…. I think that losing love and finding love are the biggest things; for example, even bigger than getting a good job. I think that, to me, is what it’s all about. There is nothing sadder than losing it, and there’s nothing better than getting it. Not that there aren’t other things to write about, but to me that is what life is about.”
To be fair, Pernice does write about other things besides finding and losing love — he has addressed the subject of cubicle life, despite the above statement. The World Won’t End has “Working Girls (Sunlight Shines),” a song about a lonely temp job worker longing for something more in life, an answer to her lifeless existence at a desk eight hours a day.
Overcome by Happiness has the glorious “Monkey Suit,” a song Pernice wrote for his brother and bandmate, Bob. Which brings up the mystery associated with the band’s name. Why is Bob only on the recordings, and isn’t visible with the band outside the studio?
“He’s got another life,” Pernice explains. “He made his decision and went his path. He has so much more [musical talent] that he never cultivated, because he went another route. That wouldn’t be the route for me.”
But, Joe, have you ever worked a desk job?
“I have, but not a lot, thank God. But what I have done has been … grim. Yes, it’s probably my deepest fear.”
I want to say, Joe, I work a desk job, and have done so for over ten years.
But I’m a chicken, afraid that he may offer no reply.
To think, Joe Pernice hates my life.